White and Black people to get more room on 2020 census to explain their origins

Ruqayya Ali of Center City peruses Philly Counts census literature during the Philly Counts 2020 summit at South Philadelphia High School.
(Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Ruqayya Ali of Center City peruses Philly Counts census literature during the Philly Counts 2020 summit at South Philadelphia High School. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Can your origins be expressed in 200 characters or less? The 2020 Census has a character limit, but WHYY is giving you the chance to go deeper. Tell us your story here.

For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau is giving people in the country’s two largest racial categories space to give more details about their origins.

People who identify as “white” or “Black or African American” will have 16 blank spaces to explain their ethnic makeup when filling out the paper copy. Those filling out the form online will have 200 characters.

In previous decades, the option to elaborate has only been available to Native Americans, people of Hispanic or Latino origin, Pacific Islanders and those who identify as “some other race.”

The change in the form aims to collect more detailed data and better reflect the country’s changing demographics, such as the increasing number of African immigrants.

For decades, census data has been used to track newcomers’ mobility over time.

D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer and editor with the Pew Research Center, has focused on the census since 1990. Giving Black and African American people more room to elaborate on their heritage, she said, “may help trace some of the differences in the immigrant experience versus the sort of longer term African American experience in the U.S.”

“The census numbers give you strength,” said Linda Berk, with the New York Regional Census Center, which includes New Jersey. “They give you support in showing that you are here, and you want services and to document that for them.”

An example of this data at work comes out of the 2010 census results in Queens, New York. Since the census recorded a significant number of Bangladeshi people with limited English language skills in the region, ballots were later offered in Bengali.

This data can do more than ensure people’s voting rights. The more detailed breakdowns can loosen federal and philanthropic purse strings.

Charitable organizations look at this information when considering grant applications from groups that serve specific communities and the census determines funding for government programs tailored to specific groups.

For example, the 2010 census helped determine how much the U.S. Department of Labor spent on job training for Native Americans ($43 million in FY 2015).

Access to federal funding and visibility are two major reasons why minority groups have long advocated for expanded ethnic breakdowns on the census form. It’s how categories like “Vietnamese,” “Korean” and “Filipino” have gotten their own boxes on the form over time (check out this interactive timeline that shows changes over the years).

And it’s part of a slow evolution in the way the census has kept up with the country’s changing attitudes over race and ethnicity since the federal government’s first survey in 1790.

It wasn’t until 1960 that people could even answer the race question on their own. Before that, census workers would guess people’s race by looking at them. Bi-racial people could only pick one race until 2000.

This year marks the first census in which “negro” will not be on the form as part of the Black and African American category. The decision to nix the term was made in 2013, shelving it with other archaic categorizations like “mulatto” and “oriental.”

“That was because the census got some pushback from people who thought that that term — which once was very popular — is now considered offensive,” said Cohn.

‘You can lose your ethnicity, but you can’t lose your race’

Still, allowing more people to self-report their race and ethnicity with longer, idiosyncratic descriptions has its skeptics.

“It’s often the case for white Americans that have been in the United States for multiple generations, they kind of selectively reach back to something in one line of their family and kind of declare that as the one that’s preeminent,” said Charles Gallagher, who chairs the sociology and criminal justice program at La Salle University and has studied white identity.

Gallagher uses himself as an example. He considers himself more Italian than Irish because his Italian grandmother would host Sunday dinner and he’d help her make dishes like pasta. Had he lived closer to his Irish grandmother, Gallagher admits he might see himself more as Irish.

Would he be giving an accurate picture to the census if he only wrote down “Italian”? No.

“These things are very contingent,” he said. “They’re contextual and they’re really not reliable at all.”

And that’s just the nature of ethnicity, which is typically understood as the cultural heritage that links someone to a region or a country. That connection could include language, food or historical experiences that people share even if a person has never been to the country they hold so dear and they live in integrated communities.

“The joke is you can lose your ethnicity, but you can’t lose your race,” Gallagher said.

The census bureau has also had trouble tracking race.

In 2010, the bureau surveyed 308.7 million people. After white and Black or African American, “some other race” was the third-most checked racial category that year. Some 19.1 people, most of them of Hispanic or Latino origin, said they were of a race not on the form.

That’s because Hispanic/Latino is considered an ethnicity and is not included in the form’s racial breakouts of white, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian and some other race.

Middle Eastern and North African communities have also resorted to checking off “some other race” because they don’t identify with any of the options provided.

Ahead of the 2020 census, the Obama administration suggested making Hispanic or Latino an option for both race and ethnicity, but it didn’t make it to the final form. Neither did a separate proposal for a category for Middle Eastern and North African communities, who can technically check off “white” as their racial group, though many don’t identify that way.

The stories and trends gleaned from the information people squeeze in 200 characters remains to be seen, but at the very least, households can expect a conversation about their origins.

At the end of the day, said Gallagher, “people want to say they came from somewhere.”

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